Tobacco 21: Giving Youth More Time to Make Better Choices

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Retired Air Force Master Sergeant Brian Hayden speaks about his experience surviving a heart attack, a heart transfer, and lung cancer during a media briefing regarding Tobacco 21.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Brian Hayden supports Tobacco 21 in San Antonio.

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My name is Brian Hayden. I am a retired Air Force master sergeant, a participant in the Centers for Disease Control’s “Tips From Former Smokers” campaign, a heart attack survivor, a heart transplant survivor, a lung cancer survivor, and an ardent advocate for the coalition for smoke-free kids. I’m active in the fight to raise the tobacco age from 18 to 21 in San Antonio because of my own story and experience.

When I was an 18-year-old airman and smoker, I had no idea that I would have a major heart attack when I was 35. Cigarettes can change your life fast. One minute you are healthy, and the next you are dead. Tobacco 21 isn’t about taking choice away from young adults, it’s about giving them more time to make better choices that will extend their lives and protect their health. My heart attack almost killed me. The fact that I worked in a military medical facility where help was nearby most certainly saved me.

After the heart attack, I was sent to Wilford Hall Medical Center here in San Antonio. Doctors performed heart surgery, ran many tests, and concluded that I would die in the next 3-5 years unless I had a heart transplant. That was July 1990.

The Air Force gave me a medical discharge, and suddenly I was a disabled veteran. I hadn’t planned to leave the military yet. I had a family that depended on me, and I didn’t know what I was going to do.

My wife, Denise, went from spouse and partner to caregiver. My career was over. Her dreams and aspirations were also over. Everything we dreamed our lives would be was over in a heartbeat. In a puff of smoke, our lives were changed forever.

Cigarettes changed the entire family dynamic. Everything revolved around the sick guy. Instead of being normal teenagers, my children rallied at my bedside, constantly wondering if Dad would be here for the next Christmas, the next birthday – you get the picture.

I was in and out of hospitals for the next 15 years. My heart failure worsened. By summer 2005, I couldn't work at all.

Oh, and did I tell you? I was still smoking.

After two years of testing, the transplant doctor gave me the pager that would alert me if a heart became available. That was the prize. We could finally take a step back and relax. But the doctor called that evening and said he needed the pager back, because he had found nicotine in my blood. I was denied the transplant, because I was still smoking. My family was devastated. That was 2007. Shortly after, I found myself in hospice, waiting to die.My wife took me out of hospice after three weeks. Yes, I still smoked, and I was still quite sick.

Another year passed, and I was still alive. It was then that I thought, if I am not going to die, I should give myself a chance to live. I quit smoking for good. But I was still very sick.

On July 9, 2012, I received a heart transplant. I had been living a smoke-free life for many years, but in the fall of 2016 I was diagnosed with lung cancer. They caught it early, and part of my lung was recently removed. Years after I quit smoking, cigarettes still affect my health.

I started smoking when I was 8 years old. I support Tobacco 21 because the later in life a person tries tobacco products, the less likely they are to become lifetime users. For the first time in decades, tobacco use has increased among high school students – this dangerous trend only means that there will be more stories like mine.

To learn more about how you can support Tobacco 21, click here. 

4 thoughts on “Tobacco 21: Giving Youth More Time to Make Better Choices

  1. Excellent article by someone who really knows what he is talking about. Would that we could get this out to every young person who smokes or wants to smoke so we can save as many as possible from the consequences most will have to endure as they age. I smoked for something like 30 years also, and I know that the habit contributed to my health problems of today. Brian is working tirelessly to make folks aware of what can, and often will, happen if they smoke. For some, it only takes a few years to do irreparable damage. For some, the damage is done by second hand smoke. God bless you Brian for what you do!

  2. Nicotine is one of the most addicting substances around as Mr. Hayden will attest! He is absolutely correct . Youngsters need the extra three years to really think what they are committing themselves to by smoking.

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